Respawn are back doing what they do best, and that's making first-person shooters, and in Titanfall 2 they've made their finest since Modern Warfare. It's strange to think that, given the omission of a single-player campaign for the first game in the studio's fledgling series, we're almost surprised that they've gone with a narrative angle on top of multiplayer for the sequel, but this is the same core team that made Call of Duty 2 and Modern Warfare, and now they're at it again, this time with their science-fiction series. Here they've made a short but sweet story driven campaign, framed through the lens of Hollywood and still harking back to the genius of Half-Life. It's big set-pieces, epic showdowns, clever twists and turns, and everything else you'd expect from the studio that was once the beating heart of Infinity Ward.
So let's start with the single-player campaign, given that's where most of the changes can be found. It's inescapably short, probably running at around six hours for most people, but those adept at shooters will complete it more quickly than that. It is, however, a lean campaign; there's not an ounce of fat on it. It starts, as you might expect, with a tutorial where you learn the basics, onboarding new players to the wall-running and double-jumping driven movement that typifies the game. After that it's not long before we're thrown into the thick of the action, fighting robotic enemies, mercenaries, IMC soldiers (the campaign is experienced through the eyes of Militia man Jack Cooper), and some of the more aggressive local fauna. Much of the focus is on the link between Pilot and Titan, and as you might expect from a shooter of this type there's an element of cliché to the story, but there was enough personality in the telling that we can have no complaints.
It's breathless, expertly paced, but perhaps over a little too quickly. While that might be a slight negative, it's still true that what's there is decent. Respawn introduces new mechanics regularly, such as one that has you flicking back and forth between perspectives in order to solve puzzles as you explore an IMC research facility, but they're used delicately and efficiently before they're put away again, and nothing - absolutely nothing - outstays its welcome. There's some great moments in there, and the mercenary enemies that you're up against are grimly portrayed and easy to dislike, but given the brevity of the campaign we'll not spoil a single moment. What we will say, though, is that it's good.
As you play through you unlock new Titan models and swap between them at will. There's some really cool builds (we liked Ronin with its sword, Scorch with its fiery attacks, and Northstar could well be OP with his long-range rifle shots) and we appreciated being able to use them in different situations, although being able to swap abilities on the fly did jar against the fiction a little. We'd have liked a New Game+ option to incentivise us to make repeat passes at the campaign, locking us into a specific Titan for the duration, maybe even with build-specific unlocks hidden away in the world that can only be discovered when using a certain class.
Indeed, our chief criticism of the single-player part of the game is that they could have done more with it. That's not us saying that they should have made more game (although perhaps they might have done), but rather that they could have made better use of what they've built. Clearly time has been a factor in determining the length and depth of the campaign, but we'd still like to see them explore it further post-launch. The aforementioned New Game+ option, re-purposed environments used for some kind of wave-based mode, or the addition of modifiers (like Halo's skulls) to add flavour to repeat plays. There's a lot that they could do, and frankly, we hope they consider adding more over time, like id are doing with Doom, or Blizzard with Diablo III.
Other than that we find little to fault in the campaign. It's snappy and succinct and thanks to the odd cinematic flourish, it feels like the work of Respawn (as implied by their heritage as a studio). We had a great time with it, and it follows in the footsteps of Doom as being one of the year's most enjoyable shooter campaigns.
It's not, however, the main attraction here, and Titanfall 2 will quite rightly draw the most attention for its online component, and that's hardly a surprise because it's one of the very best multiplayer games of the year. Simply put, Respawn has built on the solid foundations laid down for the first game, and has created a sequel that is as cleverly crafted as it is enjoyable. There's a variety of different modes, plenty of room for experimentation on the battlefield, and the potential for some interesting builds.
It's the same blend of ingredients for the most part: large arenas filled with Pilots that can traverse these environments at speed and with ease, and who, over time, have the ability to call down their own controllable Titans. On either side of the player-controlled Pilots there's friction, either grunts - both human and machine - or giant hulking Titans. Everything combines to create a busy battlefield that offers plenty of interesting decisions for the player to make. Do you want to build up your score in Attrition by shooting at grunts when you see them, knowing that you don't get much for them in terms of points, and when you're shooting you're dangerously focused and open to attack? Or do you ignore these low impact AI-controlled troops and take aim at the more elusive Pilots whenever they appear? And what do you do when you see a Titan? Jump on its back and pull out its battery, rodeo-style, or run for cover and hope to live and fight another day?
Titanfall 2 is slick and fast-paced, and there's potential here for genuine player expression on the battlefield thanks to a range of well-implemented mechanics. It's a game about speed and accuracy, but there's also an element of risk and reward, because in Respawn's shooter fortune favours the brave, and if you can execute the parkour-style movement at the same time as ling up a target, then you'll enjoy plenty of success. There's verticality built into all of the maps, and Pilots still feel deadly and agile as they traverse the world (and the new grapple allows even snappier movement in and around built up areas). The developer has done a great job of providing the player with tools that feel empowering, and they've found a good balance between making the controls accessible, and building a challenging environment that facilitates wall-running and slick movement. There's multiple routes through each arena, and that's whether your playing as the Pilot or controlling your Titan.
Six of the eight Titan classes make it into the online portion. Playing as one of these giant mechanised warriors is nearly always a blast, but we still found that using it as a personal bodyguard also works a treat (if you call down a Titan and don't get in it, the AI takes control and you can stay on foot). Letting them run loose can help you stay alive longer, acting as a great diversion, your own personal tank to soak up the bullets while you move around, jumping through buildings and running along walls. This time around Titans contain batteries that can be removed as part of the rodeo manoeuvre, and once stolen they can be given to a friendly who gets a helpful shield, keeping them alive longer.
Builds will no doubt evolve over time, this because there are lots of things to unlock and earn as you level up. Weapons have multiple upgrade possibilities, and you can pair your guns up with complimentary grenades and bonus abilities (our favourite lets you periodically reveal to your team the location of opposing players, a real boon in combat, but you can also do things like send out decoy holograms). We liked the new setup over the burn cards of old, and there's a lot of room for teams to mix up their abilities for maximum effect in battle. In fact, team cohesion in general can be thoughtfully engineered, with a nice mix of Titan builds and Pilot skills ready for exploration in what we can only imagine will be an interesting and ever-shifting meta game.
Players will be able to find each other through the usual channels, as well as an in-game feature called Networks that'll allow players to join multiple groups where they can mingle with like-minded souls. Once they've found each other Pilots will head out to wage war across a range of modes, ranging from shooter staples like TDM and CTF, through to Titanfall specials like Attrition and Last Titan Standing. There's even a cool one-on-one arena mode called Coliseum. Arguably it's when Respawn plays it safe and has us capturing flags and objectives that it's at its weakest, and it's the moments where giant Titans clash while Pilots scurry underfoot, where it revels in its own uniqueness, that Titanfall 2 is most impressive. The battlefield regularly lights up with huge explosions, there's chaos and opportunity at every turn, and there's so much going on that there's rarely a dull moment.
The decent range of modes is complemented by kinetic gunplay. You can almost feel the kick of the most powerful weapons, and there's different tools in there to suit all tastes. Importantly, hit detection seemed really accurate (although admittedly we were playing in carefully controlled conditions), and the controls felt responsive and intuitive. The action plays out across a variety of maps (with more set to drop in the future, and not via paid-for DLC, this time they're not splitting the community and all subsequent maps will be free) that in some cases felt reminiscent of those from the first game, but there was enough to them to set them apart from their predecessors. Once again a balance has been struck between locations fit for Pilots, and more open spaces where Titans can roam. If we were being hyper-critical we might say that most of the maps weren't especially memorable, but at least they didn't feel too similar to one another.
The whole package looks great, with crisp visuals across the board, and a steady frame-rate for the most part, although we did notice that there was some jerkiness to some of the animations. We'd have perhaps liked a bit more variety and colour from the environments (and we may still get that from future content), but we're splitting hairs at the end of the day, and what's there is perfectly functional and very much fit for purpose. The audio mix also needs a mention, and thanks to some crunching sound effects it really accentuates the multiplayer experience. Similarly, the voice over work for the single-player was also decent, and Titan companion BT 7274 in particular made a lasting impression (channelling the spirit of Optimus Prime no less).
Considered in its entirety Titanfall 2 is easy to recommend. The single-player part of the game is great, despite being short-lived, and it offers an easily consumable five to six hour campaign that mixes action, platforming, light puzzles and some memorable set-pieces. Sure, they could have done more with it, but it still stands as a great tutorial for the multiplayer, which itself undoubtedly offers some of the best online action that you'll find this year. There's more variety, refined systems, and a wealth of mechanics that facilitate exciting and adventurous play. Simply put, Titanfall 2 has got it all, and if you're after a sci-fi shooter to lose yourself in for the foreseeable future, we'd recommend you make this your next port of call.